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Tribal exorcism at Croke Park as Irish thrive on the emotion

Greatest Dublin sporting occasions: No 1 - Ireland v England 2007 with Eamon Carr

Beating England at GAA headquarters unleashed a tidal wave of national joy

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Ireland's Ronan O'Gara is tackled by England's Martin Corry and Andy Farrell. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Ireland's Ronan O'Gara is tackled by England's Martin Corry and Andy Farrell. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll is caught by England's Harry Ellis

Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll is caught by England's Harry Ellis

SPORTSFILE

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Ireland's Ronan O'Gara is tackled by England's Martin Corry and Andy Farrell. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

It was the day of days.

A day of acute social bonding when every Irish nerve-ending crackled with a collective electrical charge.

A day when a heightened awareness of every nuance of protocol, every diplomatic nicety and every behavioural gesture, official and unofficial, had everyone living on edge.

It was the day in February 2007 when Ireland played England in an international rugby match for the first time ever at Croke Park, the historic home of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

In April 2005, after intense debate, the GAA amended its Rule 42 and paved the way for Irish rugby and soccer international matches to be played at the showcase HQ venue.

A year later came the announcement that, with the IRFU's Lansdowne Road ground closed for development, France and England would play the next season's Six Nations matches against Ireland on Jones's Road.

Not everyone was pleased.

But IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne struck an optimistic note, pointing to the initiative as a significant milestone in Irish sporting history.

In the first home rugby international of 2007, Ireland played France and were denied what would have been a legendary victory when fleet-footed Vincent Clerc skipped through the Irish defence for a try in the final minute.

That result piled extra pressure on the Ireland squad and threw the England match into an even sharper focus.

But it wasn't just competition points or national pride that were at stake. This was a match that carried the added burden of centuries of historical baggage.

A must-win match then? No. This was definitely a must-not-lose match.

Croke Park can be tense on a big game day but on this afternoon, instead of a minor match, it was the supporters who became the leading dramatis personae.

Long before the teams came out, the concern had been building as to how the respective national anthems would be received.

Four years earlier, there had been controversy at Lansdowne Road when England captain Martin Johnson positioned his team on the wrong end of the red carpet and refused to budge for the anthems, forcing President Mary McAleese to walk on the turf.

In a match that was a Grand Slam decider for both teams, Johnson's unforgiving posture propelled England to a 42-6 victory.

In Croke Park, a buzz of anticipation ran through a packed house, officially put at 82,500, as everyone knew that it would take just one or two misguided voices of dissent to embarrass the host nation.

If ever there was a time when it was essential for a country to express itself confidently on the pitch, this was it.

With so much at stake, it's no wonder that every moment of the pre-match formalities remains scorched into the memory banks along with every passage pf play.

The pitch was in immaculate condition as Phil Vickery led out England to generous applause.

But moments later the atmosphere became hyper-charged as Brian O'Driscoll, who'd missed the France match, led out the team in green to a decibel-busting roar.

Usually it's the first contact after kick-off that sets the pulse racing. This time it was the playing of both national anthems, songs that relayed narratives of turbulent history.

The significance of 'God Save The Queen' being played by the combined Army No 1 and Garda bands on this particular field can not be overstated.

The lusty voices of the visiting supporters seemed amplified by the stadium's bright acoustics.

When it ended, the England players seemed relieved that nothing untoward had happened.

The Irish supporters had the good manners to show respect to the visiting team, even clapping after the anthem. Martin Corry spontaneously returned the Irish crowd's applause.

Before 'Amhrán na bhFiann' struck up, the noise rose to an almighty swell and waves of sound crashed around the stands, sounding as if every Irish man and woman in the venue had summoned the raucous spirits of dead ancestors for the occasion.

It was impossible to escape the feeling that this wasn't simply a sporting occasion.

This was part tribal exorcism, part shamanic birthing ritual.

You could sense the emotion surge through the team. Big John Hayes and Jerry Flannery were in tears.

But this potentially explosive overture had passed off without hitch and the players looked both relieved and determined to get on with the main event. A rugby Test.

It didn't take long for the alternative Irish national anthem, 'The Fields of Athenry', to resound around the ground with its coded subtext about "Trevelyan's corn" just before Ireland went level on penalties.

Next, Ireland had inched ahead on penalties, when O'Driscoll put in an almighty tackle on Olly Morgan. Minutes later Ronan O'Gara put over a third penalty.

England looked nervous and soon Danny Grewcock was sin-binned. Ireland went for touch, won the throw and, following some deft passing from the resulting maul, sent Girvan Dempsey over for a try, which O'Gara converted.

Thirty minutes of rugby had been played and Ireland were 16-3 up. By half-time the lead has been increased to 23-3.

Any doubting GAA hardliners who were watching must surely have conceded that the Irish lads were good at this 'foreign game'.

Ireland were the more physical team on the day.

We would learn much later of the passion on display in the Ireland changing room at half-time where Paul O'Connell thundered: "There's no on here who's f***ing tired. There is f***ing so much more in us. We should be talking about putting up a score here. We should be going bananas now for forty minutes."

Both sides put points on the board, England a converted try and penalty, Ireland two penalties, before the try that seemed to have been scripted by the gods of sport.

Out of a ruck near the Cusack Stand the ball came to Peter Stringer who passed to O'Gara.

ROG didn't hesitate. He sent over a perfectly-judged lofted pass towards the corner, where in front of the Hogan Stand, Shane Horgan soared heavenwards and took the ball with the panache of a Brian Mullins or Gerry McEntee.

Josh Lewsey was a bewildered spectator as Horgan (left) dived to earth for Ireland's second try.

O'Gara converted to push Ireland into a 36-13 lead.

"I think it was fitting for Croke Park that we threw one of these in," quipped O'Gara later. "You have to."

The party wasn't over.

Isaac Boss came on to add another try.

The final result, Ireland 43 England 13, meant that the winning margin of 30 points was greater than the all-time record winning margin against England of 22 points set in 1947.

England coach Brian Ashton's analysis of the match was concise. "We were stuffed," he said. "It's as simple as that."

Gordon D'Arcy, who had created Ireland's opening try with a clever pass, summed it up when he said, "The Irish players did history justice. It was not about revenge, more of a tribute."